Historically, Christmas season is embedded in the traditions of the old Roman celebration of Saturnalia. When the Christian church adopted December 25—the birthday of Mithra, the old god of light—as the date to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, it accepted that the key Christian holiday would exist side-by-side with the abandon and debauchery associated with the old holiday. The impact was so great that, when Puritans left England looking for a purer society in America, they outlawed the old celebration of Christmas. Eventually, Christmas was re-conceived in America as a holiday focused on family and children, incorporating elements of northern European celebrations. In England, Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” emphasized giving and sharing as Christmas ideals, and our modern ideal of Christmas was born.
Today, though, the holiday is returning to its Saturnalian roots, but as re-defined by a commercialized society. Christmas has become less about giving than about spending. For some years now, retail merchants have pushed the spending season back to Thanksgiving. “Black Friday” now starts on Thanksgiving Day or, at best, on midnight as Thurday turns to Friday. Thanksgiving weekend has, in addition to Black Friday, attracted new opportunities to spend: Small Business Saturday, Cyber Monday, etc. During the holiday season, increasingly, we cease to be Christians, Jews, Muslims, or Buddhists; we all become simply consumers. In the process, the spirit of Christmas—both as a religious celebration and a time to celebrate family and the spirit of giving at the beginning of a new natural cycle—is being overshadowed by commercial greed. This is a longstanding problem, but it seems to be getting worse these days to the point where the spiritual meaning of the season is barely visible.
What to do? I was happy to see that, this year, people pushed back, using social media to encourage folks to enjoy Thanksgiving Day with family and to avoid stores during the Black Friday onslaught. The fact that people are able to shop online also has had an impact, giving people confidence that they need not rush out to local stores to shop “while supplies last.” Like many issues in today’s Information Society, the best approach seems to be “crowd-sourcing”—people taking things into their own hands and simply refusing to led around by commercial interests.
I have very fond memories of Christmas as a family celebration of the warmth and optimism associated with the birth of Christ—and the symbolic assurance that the world will brighten again. There were presents, to be sure, but it was also a time for family, friends, and neighbors and for quiet reflection. Let’s not lose these in the face of what has become a mindless commercial Saturnalia.